Adoree’ Jackson was just having fun.
Before fielding a Notre Dame punt late in the first half with USC ahead by a field goal, the junior turned to pump up the crowd — soaking wet from a steady rain — waving his arms and igniting a roar from the drenched faithful.
A few seconds later, Jackson was gone, taking the punt on a bounce, finding a seam and bursting through it for a 55-yard touchdown to grab control of the game for his team.
“I was being aggressive the whole game,” Jackson said.
He was just getting started.
Jackson finished with three touchdowns in Saturday’s 45-27 win over Notre Dame, scoring on a punt return, a kick return and on offense — each one equally spectacular. The multi-faceted performance from the versatile junior etched his name into some conversations for the Heisman Trophy and — if he chooses to turn pro following the season — ensured that he left the Coliseum with a bang in his potential final home game.
“We have this creature here to the right of me, doing a kick return, punt return and a catch for a touchdown,” head coach Clay Helton said. “He just looked like something … he’s a superhero figure. I don’t even know.”
Even in games where he doesn’t have a flashy moment, Jackson arguably still works harder than any other player on the field. Primarily a cornerback and the team’s most athletic defensive player, he is usually matched up against the opponent’s best wide receiver. He returns all punts and kicks, making him an integral part of the special teams’ unit. And he occasionally appears on offense, either as a decoy or for a specially designed play meant to gain big yardage.
“I think he’s the best overall football player in the country,” redshirt junior defensive back Chris Hawkins said.
Redshirt sophomore defensive back Ajene Harris, who returned an interception for a touchdown in the win, echoed that sentiment.
“Everything he does is just like a ‘wow’ to everybody,” Harris said. “I don’t know if there’s something he can’t do, to be honest with you.”
It would be hard-pressed to find another player who excels at so many parts of the game as Jackson, and his versatility was on full display on Saturday. His 52-yard scamper down the left sideline in the third quarter on a screen pass blew the game open, but it was his 97-yard kick return for a touchdown later in the quarter that officially turned a sloppy afternoon into “The Adoree’ Game.”
“I felt bad for the people blocking on that play,” Hawkins said, “because they don’t really get to see what he did in real time.”
It probably took watching a replay for everyone else to fully appreciate the return as well. Taking the kickoff from inside his own 5-yard line, Jackson broke a couple of tackles, sped upfield and leapt over Notre Dame placekicker John Chereson before running into the end zone.
Jackson called the leap “instinct.”
“I did it in high school before,” he said. “I know kickers always hit low and try to get you out to the sideline. As soon as he came to me, I was just timing it up and I was able to hurdle him.”
Too tired to land a front flip after scoring, Jackson said he settled on mimicking the Heisman pose. That probably worked out for the best, because Jackson may have an outside chance at claiming college football’s most prestigious award. Though Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson remains the clear favorite, Jackson might earn a trip to New York for the ceremony, and he can thank his outburst on Saturday for the invite.
“He’s the best player I know in the whole country,” junior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu said. “Best player, hands down. You witnessed it right there. No player has ever hurdled over a guy and scored — that I know of.”
Nwosu was quickly reminded of the last USC player to leap over a defender and score: Reggie Bush, who hurdled UCLA’s Marcus Cassel in the regular season finale in 2005 to help send the then-No. 1 Trojans to the national championship. Though he eventually forfeited the trophy, Bush went on to win the Heisman that year.
“Turn the 2 upside down and it’s a 5 Now,” Jackson tweeted after the game, referring to jersey numbers and placing side-by-side images of the two leaps.
“Young Bull,” Bush responded, with a bull emoji.
Jackson might not win the Heisman, but he has won over a fair share of hearts at USC. Through three tumultuous seasons, Jackson has been a stalwart on defense and a game-changer both on offense and special teams. And if Saturday was his last USC game at the Coliseum, he could not have scripted his day any better.
As the game finished up and a majority of players departed for the locker room, Jackson ran toward the USC student section and climbed onto a ladder in front of the marching band to lead “Conquest.” He jubilantly stabbed the sword in the air, and when it was over, turned to the crowd, which responded with chants of, “One more year! One more year!”
Upon hearing it, Jackson paused and nodded his head before rocking back and forth and doing a mini-dance to the chant’s rhythm. Then, he climbed down and headed for the tunnel, unsure of if this would be the final time he would make that trek in a USC jersey.
Jackson did admit the chants made it harder for him to leave.
“It’s one of those feelings you can’t describe,” he said. “The crowd was loud. This game was the most fun game I’ve ever been a part of. Just hearing them scream and everything throughout the game, it was a feeling that was unbelievable.”
But will the “feeling” be worth another season at USC? Only time will tell.